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Two Decades of Change at Oxford University

  • 3 March 2023
  • By Mike Ratcliffe
  • This review of the new book by Gill Evans, After North, has been kindly written for HEPI by Mike Ratcliffe, who is an experienced Academic Registrar. Anyone who would like a copy of the book itself should email the author here.
  • Next Tuesday, HEPI is hosting its first Annual Lecture since the pandemic crisis, there are still (just) a few spare seats – for more information, see here.

Oxford is, according to some league tables, the best university in the world. Professor GR Evans has written about the last 25 years with a focus on governance. By her account, it’s not necessarily the case that it has the best governance of any university in the world and it may be that the previous Vice-Chancellor agreed with her.

In the UK the activities of Oxford and Cambridge attract a lot of attention, and in this account Evans provides a thorough account of many of the issues that attracted that attention. Moving part of a university library normally doesn’t attract much attention either inside or outside most universities – but it does at Oxford. At Oxford, a college’s student association passing a motion to move a picture can get a headline. 

In her 2010 history of the university, Evans looked forward to the ‘chance to expand on the few pages on contemporary governance of the university that even a generous editor would allow in a general history of a 900 year old institution’ (p76). Here Evans seizes her chance, using internal documents of the University. Key is the official record, the Gazette, in which accounts of the University’s business appear. The other main source is the Oxford Magazine (OM), which is a forum circulated in the University, but not an official publication. The OM is not currently being circulated due to a GDPR issue, but there’s a concern that actually it’s not been circulated to prevent free discussion of the University’s affairs. A cursory glance through the OM will confirm that people don’t often write articles supporting a particular change (or change in general). 

The book consists of two parts: an argument about the drift in governance, and a series of annexes detailing particular issues. The word ‘change’ appears in the title of Evans’ book, but there’s a sense that she’s not that keen on many of the particular changes or change to governance in general. The book is framed by the review of governance undertaken by a commission of inquiry chaired by Peter North and published in 1998. 

This is quite a significant period of contemporary history in which much change has happened to the UK higher education sector. Oxford and Cambridge are not the apex of a national planned system, but key players in a sector that is guided by nudges – both funding and regulatory. There is an extent to which the wealth and prestige that Oxford has enabled it to choose different options to other universities. It has, for example chosen not to expand the number of undergraduates it teaches. Other choices have seen an expansion in postgraduate teaching and in ‘big science’. 

In the past Oxford’s governance systems have rejected a number of changes, for example: adding science to the curriculum, the admission of women to degrees, or accepting government funds. A hundred years ago, Oxford had changed its mind on these, but they were still controversial enough for excitable graduates to propose burning down the new laboratories and chasing the women out of town. 

For the reader outside Oxford, Evans provides a clear picture of what it looks like from the inside. It’s worth remembering EH Carr’s maxim that you should ‘Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’ Those who’ve followed the issues around decisions made in Oxford and Cambridge will know the name GR Evans, and, in Carr’s terms there is a buzzing in this historyEvans argues that some of the decisions made in the University have been wrong. For example, Oxford’s attempt to reform its Council along the lines of all other universities (excepting Cambridge’s) wasn’t necessary – the regulator has allowed its continuance. There may be no right answer to the question of retirement age for academic staff, but the current answer hasn’t settled the issue. Evans has assembled a fine collection of the ‘wrong’ decisions taken by Oxford. 

Approaches to governance in universities can be described as a triangle, reflecting a governing body, an executive and an academic government. Shattock (2012) has tracked the change in power between these authorities. The academic government authority might have had a good claim to be the most powerful in many universities in the 1960s to 1980s. Bodies such as the Office for Students now have clear views of the duties of the governing body and the executive (the accounting officer) but less so the academic government. Much of the Quality Assurance Agency’s guidance reflected the importance of the academic government – expecting to find a self-critical academic community. 

Oxford’s three parts of the triangle look different with a single Council chaired by the Vice-Chancellor with Congregation being the sovereign body of the university. Congregation is a vestige of its medieval democracy – an assembly of academic and academic-related staff in the university – acting as a part of checks and balances. While there’s a role in testing the mood of the academic community, it often exercises that as a way of formally undeciding things. It’s a complaint that while universities might be getting better at deciding things, they retain a knack of undeciding things. Oxford also has additional features, such as the colleges which sometimes have their own governance challenges.

The way that Congregation mainly works now is that decisions by the Council are accepted unless objections are made. The record of Congregation, therefore, is a record of objection. The Oxford Magazine is an amplification of those objections. This affects Professor Evan’s sources. Take an example where she is particularly buzzing: changes to the libraries. In Annex H there’s a series of changes that haven’t found favour, including moving the History faculty library across the road. This freed up space for a high profile new institute, but meant taking volumes of journals to the store. At the time, robustly worded articles appeared in the OM and Congregation was roused. Evans gives us an account of the permutations, but there’s a missing opportunity to test whether the sky fell in? Is it perhaps the case now that online access has transformed journal access? The Annex ends with a short note on the expansion of digital resources.

At points it’s tempting to read more buzzing into Evans’ account than might be there. In the Annex on professional services there’s a taste of the concern of the growth of administration that has populated the OM. It’s noted that the consultation on professional services in 2021 ‘had its own “communications” email’ – including that detail could be positive, or neutral or perhaps the quotation marks indicate a negativity towards such exercises. Readers can make their own assessment; those who are managerialists may detect a hint of scorn. 

Ticking along are all the decisions that haven’t been objected to. There must be a hundred things that the University has decided not to do – we know that ministers have implored it to open new undergraduate colleges or sponsor schools and it hasn’t. It’s not opened an overseas campus. But there are positive changes too. An alternative view of change in recent years was given by the previous Vice-Chancellor in her last Oration to Congregation. Professor Dame Louise Richardson tracked changes that a time traveller might notice from the last six years: new facilities, changes to access, and engagement with the world. The leading role of the university typified, of course, by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. But, while echoing some of the concerns about the costs of administration that might be found in the pages of the OM, Richardson gave governance in the university an ‘F’ grade, wondering if it might need another review. Change was also welcomed in Professor Irene Tracy’s incoming Oration, but she appeared not to take up the challenge of looking at governance. 

This is a careful study of the contemporary history of one of Britain’s, and the world’s, best universities. If you can detect the buzzing in Professor Evans’s account, there are plenty of books about the same period where the authors are shouting (books that talk of the ‘death of the university’ etc). The question is rather left open whether Oxford is better or worse because of its governance, or maybe in spite of it. It matters that Oxford makes the right decisions, not necessarily those about moving paintings, but in its education and research priorities. Professor Evans does not proscribe what should happen next about governance, but it’s worth noting that after three vice-chancellors with direct experience of how other universities are governed, the new leader is the ‘ultimate insider’, stepping up a career at the university including heading a college. 

  • Gill Evans, After ‘North’ Two Decades of Change at Oxford University, 2022
  • Gill Evans, The University of Oxford – A new history, 2010
  • Mike Shattock, ‘University Governance – an issue for our time’, in Perspectives Vol 16, No 2, 2012, pp 56-61

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